Michigan newspapers fight bill to cut public notices

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Legal notices look like classified ads but carry news about government proceedings and plans. There is a requirement to post them to make that news accessible.

Legal notices look like classified ads but carry news about government proceedings and plans. There is a requirement to post them to make that news accessible.

The second bill introduced during the 99th session of the Michigan House of Representatives would move public notices from newspapers to government websites.

Rep. Rob VerHeulen (R-Walker), who introduced HB-4002, said “As the Internet replaces hard-copy newspapers, it seems we need to adjust our reporting requirements to reflect the new reality in the world. More people are using the Internet to get their news and it’s much less costly on the local units of government, which makes it less of burden on taxpayers who ultimately pay the cost of that.”

Newspapers, hurting financially, have opposed such bills through state and national press associations.

Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager at the Michigan Press Association, said providing public notices in various formats while maintaining a permanent legal record is vital to governmental integrity and accountability.

“Public notices are legal documents,” McGraw said. “They are recording of what governments are doing so we feel like print provides permanent legal records. However, local governments feel they cost too much money and they could do this on their own websites.”

Public notices go back to 1789 and the first session of Congress. It required bills, orders, resolutions and congressional votes be published in at least three publicly available newspapers. Today, local governments work under similar requirements and the ads provide an important source of revenue for newspapers.

Bradley L. Thompson II is treasurer of the state association and president of the board of directors of the Public Notice Resource Center in Falls Church, Virginia. He is also Chairman & CEO of Detroit Legal News Company. Thompson said saving money may not be a good reason for local governments to post public notices on their own websites because the process requires staff to upload, service and maintain the records and the websites.

Bradley L. Thompson II

Joe Grimm

Bradley L. Thompson II

“Websites are fairly complex, expensive to create, maintain and update,” said Thompson. “Newspapers provided this service for hundreds of years and we feel very strong with that is the best way to provide good public notices to the public with the independent voice of the newspaper.”

The Public Notice Resource Center reported Feb. 7 that bills to change the way government notices are publicized have been introduced in 25 states so far this year. Twelve states were considering laws to move all or most public notices from newspapers to government-run websites.

In Michigan, VerHeulen’s bill would specify how three tiers of public notices should be posted.

One of the most contentious fights has been New Jersey’s, where former presidential hopeful Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign to keep the ads out of newspapers has been called a “revenge bill” to punish newspapers. Christie has chafed under unfavorable coverage about spending time away from the state and the Bridgegate scndal.

Newspapers have said that taking that ad revenue out of newspapers would hurt their ability to inform the public on those issues and do other watchdog journalism. They do not typically call the bills an assault on the First Amendment, but say that it limits their ability to carry out their constitutionally protected responsibilities.

Usually, they argue about the benefits of posting in newspapers, which already post in print and online, and which are available even to everyone.

McGraw said we cannot guarantee an entire community has the access and skills to know how and where to find public notices on a government website because “in poor and senior communities, not everybody has the internet.”

“I hate to think that is to hide things, but it makes one wonder,” McGraw said. “It’s an issue about transparency, open government and the Freedom of Information Act.”

VerHeulen said that this issue has been ongoing for several years and he wants to make sure the discussion continues and that people can find a consensus. “We want to make sure we are totally transparent so that people know about things that impact their lives,” he said.

VerHeulen’s bill is similar to bills introduced in the previous two legislative sessions by former Rep. Amanda Price, R-Clark Township.

The Michigan Press Association has proposed that local governments keep public notices in newspapers and use the online reach and accessibility of newspaper websites to give residents access to them in a secure, efficient way at reasonable cost.

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